By Tony Massarotti, 98.5 The Sports Hub
Let’s make this as simple as possible for everyone: Gordon Hayward wants Indiana. Indiana wants Gordon Hayward. But to make that happen, both need the Celtics.
In that way, Danny Ainge has held the keys to unlock the deal.
Look, it’s the NBA, so it’s complicated. But you’ll just have to take my word for it, consider it informed speculation, call it purely my interpretation. But this is what I believe. Because of salary cap constraints, Hayward cannot simply opt out and become a free agent, then sign with the Indiana Pacers in the city and state where he was born, schooled and resides. He needs the Celtics to sign him to a contract that is workable for the Pacers and palatable for Hayward, then trade him home.
If Hayward simply wanted to play for the Celtics, he could have opted into his contract and finished out his time here on a one-year deal for more than $34 million, taking one more crack at a championship. If he wanted to be the star of a team, he could have simply opted out days ago and then sign with a dead-end organization like the New York Knicks or Atlanta Hawks starting at 6 pm tonight. (If you think tampering happens in politics, you should see the NBA.) These options have all been on the table for weeks and months, which brings me to this.
Here’s the one option I (and you?) should not and cannot accept: that Hayward doesn’t know what he wants to do yet. Please. Hayward knows. And if he doesn’t, his wife surely does. Or his agent. Or all of them. Hayward has preferred choices at this point, and it’s really just a question as to whether he’s willing to accept Options B, C or D if he can’t get Option A.
Option A was, is and always has been Indiana.
From the start, Hayward’s time here in Boston has been a disaster. When he signed with the Celtics, Hayward did so to become a centerpiece. Six weeks later, the Celtics traded for Kyrie Irving. Then Hayward suffered a horrific injury in his first game with Boston, which opened the door for rookie Jayson Tatum to play more. When Hayward returned the next season, he wasn’t the same player – who would be? – then broke a hand in a freak injury when he got his fingers caught in the jersey of San Antonio’s LaMarcus Aldridge. In Year 3, he couldn’t stay on the floor, then got derailed by a pandemic. When play resumed, Hayward rolled an ankle in the NBA bubble, missed the birth of his son, was a non-factor in the final playoff series against the Miami Heat.
Did anything go right for this guy in Boston? Yeesh. Talk about doom and gloom.
All of this brings us back to the Celtics and Ainge, who are in a precarious position of their own. Again, because of the NBA salary cap, the Celtics have limited options through which they can acquire more talent to put around Tatum and Jaylen Brown. They signed Al Horford, who left. They traded for Irving, who left. Hayward might now be be their last significant portal. Do they owe him anything after the train wreck that ahs been his time in Boston? Or are they obligated to do what’s best for their team? In some ways, Ainge and the club are damned if they do and damned if they don't.
Obviously, there are a still a truckload of unanswered questions this. Are the talks between Indiana dead? If so, why? Are the Celtics playing hardball and blocking Hayward’s path? Or is a deal simply impossible because the Celtics want nothing to do with someone like Myles Turner? Rather than playing for the Knicks or Hawks, wouldn’t Hayward be better served to play a lesser role for the Celtics and at least have a chance at a championship? Or is he so traumatized by his Boston experience that he wants out badly enough to play for an NBA dreg?
But make no mistake. The first option is clear. If Hayward could sign tonight with Indiana and be done with it all, he would. He would close the book on Boston and end the frustrating chapter to the peak years of his career. He would go home. He would move on.
But he needs the Celtics’ help to do it.